With HBO’s Game of Thrones out of the running for this year’s Emmy Awards, the race is on for other Outstanding Drama Series contenders to swoop in and stock up on those sharp, heavy golden trophies in September. Whether the Emmy goes to a story about another monarchy may come down to Emmy voters’ perceptions. Netflix’s The Crown, a period piece about the life of Queen Elizabeth II, was lauded by critics and obsessed over by fans when it premiered late last year. Plus, it won major prizes at the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards. So it’s obviously going to nab this year’s Emmy Award for Drama Series, right?
Or is The Crown merely a sudsy interpretation of the story of Britain’s longest-reigning monarch? Is this the case of another historical soap opera that may land multiple Emmy nominations, such as PBS’ Downton Abbey and Wolf Hall, without ever winning its genre’s top prize? Will it be written off as a bodice-ripping revisionist history like Showtime’s The Tudors, which only received Emmy accolades in crafts categories like art direction and cinematography?
Zach Laws, contributing editor at awards analysis site Gold Derby, says that Downton comparisons might actually work in The Crown’s favor—that the new series “fills a certain slot” and is a reminder that there was, recently, another series (ahem, Downton) that was “done well, but also caught on to a wider audience.” Alas, Downton had unfortunate timing, losing out to heavy hitters like Breaking Bad and Thrones.
Plus, Laws says, Netflix has launched “savvy PR campaigns” this Emmy season, not just for its new shows but also for its returning programs. For The Crown, that’s included inviting fans and Emmy voters in the Los Angeles area to a sit-down interview with stars Claire Foy and Matt Smith, hosted by fellow Brit and The Late Late Show host James Corden, as well as a full-on Emmy campaign soiree that celebrated all of Netflix’s shows.
But obviously, Laws can’t help but stress, it’s hard to know for sure until Emmy nominations are announced on July 13.
“With these new shows at the Emmys, we never know how popular they are until the nominations come out,” Laws says. “The only thing we’re going off of every year are the previous years’ nominations… We don’t know if they’re going to go for The Crown or This is Us. Or they could go for Stranger Things. Or they could go for House of Cards or Better Call Saul, shows that have been in the running before.”
Golden Globes and SAG wins can help, but it wouldn’t be the first time a series received such buzz during the winter award season only to fizzle out come summer. Just look at the first season of Showtime’s The Affair, which won Golden Globes for Best Drama Series and for its lead actress, Ruth Wilson, but did not receive Emmy nominations that year. (In fact, its only Emmy nomination to date went to Maura Tierney, who last year received a nod for Outstanding Supporting Actress (Drama) for killing it as a jilted spouse.)
Primetime soaps have also long fought for the legitimization that comes with an Emmy win. Dynasty garnered 24 Emmy nominations over its nine-year run on ABC in the 1980s, including for Drama Series, but its only win went to costume designer Nolan Miller. More recently, ABC’s Desperate Housewives failed to nab a nomination for Comedy Series, despite its ferocious popularity. (Lead actress Felicity Huffman did take home the trophy for the series’ first year). Or consider the same network’s long-running Grey’s Anatomy. That medical drama has received heaps of nominations over the years, but has seen its only major acting category win go to supporting actress Katherine Heigl in 2007. (Loretta Divine won the Guest Actress in a Drama trophy in 2011 and was nominated again the following year.)
“The last historical drama that really captured a nation was between ’74 and ’77, and it was Upstairs, Downstairs and it won every year,” veteran awards campaign publicist Richard Licata says of the seminal PBS program, set in Edwardian-era Britain. “That’s really fascinating when you look back at that. Broadcast shows couldn’t get the award for those three or four [years].”
As for The Crown’s comparisons to what some consider to be more frivolous fair, he says “I see Grey’s in a different light. It’s always and still is, miraculously, a very well-produced and well-acted soap opera.”
Licata stresses that it isn’t as if The Crown is in danger of being shut out completely.
“I’ve been to a lot of parties lately—industry type things and even socially with my friends who aren’t in the business—and I will casually ask, ‘What were your favorite shows this year?’ It’s always The Crown and This is Us,” says Licata, who, it should be noted, was once the PR chief at Showtime and worked on the campaigns for The Tudors. “I find this kind of fascinating because 10 years ago or five years ago, I don’t think a show like The Crown would have come into that world. But I think the advent of bingeing has given historical dramas much more of an advantage because people are savoring them over a weekend. It’s creating a real excitement.”
In fact, Laws argues that, if we were to factor in technical categories like costuming and makeup, he can “see a scenario where The Crown is the most nominated series of the year because of all the craft categories and the acting categories as well.”
Licata and Laws do differ on how much real-world politics will play into voting, with Laws pointing to Oscar winner Moonlight as an example of a great film that may also have benefitted from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s need to better its public perception problem. He adds that it’s hard to ignore that The Crown is a series about a successful female leader, which could be something that relates to American TV Academy voters who daydream of a revisionist history.
“Absolutely, the politics are going to come into play; it’s inevitable,” Laws says, adding that “the thing about Emmy voters is they like to feel as if their vote matters. That’s why you see political winners in years where there are elections… It could be appealing watching a woman becoming a leader at a time of great distress and really stepping up for her country.”
Still, he says, “September is nine months into this year, and we don’t know what nine months into this presidency is going to do in terms of impacting [Emmy] voters.” He explains that it’s unlikely someone from, say, the art directors branch of the Academy will or won’t vote for The Crown’s production design simply because he or she has a grudge against Donald Trump.
Licata believes “people vote with their hearts with a lot of these things.” Because of that, he thinks the smart money is on a race between The Crown and fellow freshman drama, NBC tear-jerker This is Us.
“We can’t discount This is Us,” he says. “It’s getting an excess of 15 million people watching it every week. In the world that we’re living in, I think that was kind of a respite. If voters vote for sentimentality, I think This is Us has a really good shot. If they vote for the sheer beauty of filmmaking and film acting… If people go with the art of great television filmmaking, then The Crown will win.”
Tears versus tiaras? That sounds like the perfect Emmy campaign.
Read our (unofficial) Emmy nominations ballot here.